Time out of mind: A critical analysis of NBC’s “Hannibal”

Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal” is unafraid to look at some big issues. Sure, there’s Hitchcockian meditations on the similarities between food, sex and death, but there are also uncomfortable examinations of divinity, duality and reality. Very audience friendly topics. A particularly fascinating topic that evolved during the second season was the uncontrollable nature of time. Time is a primal, fatal force in “Hannibal”: larger than humanity and beyond our grasp.

This is not to say that time wasn’t present in the first season. In “Hannibal,” time has always been a yardstick for reality. One of the most memorable recurring visuals in “Hannibal’s” first season was of Will Graham drawing a clock so that he, according to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, might ground himself in reality. In truth, each clock Graham drew became increasingly, and unwittingly, distorted. Time is also a scene setting device: the time lapse photography that serves as both an interesting visual accent. The motif of the swinging golden bar that transitions us from reality to Graham’s empathetic visions of crimes resembles a clock’s pendulum as he goes back in time, in his mind’s eye, to crime scenes.

That concept, the concept of the control of time, is especially heightened in the second season. In the third episode of season two, we watch Graham watch his own electrifying execution in reverse. When the images move forward, it is Graham himself who pulls the switch that ends his life. The scene is revealed to be a dream when Graham is woken by a guard who says, “It’s time.”

Images of running water–the river in Graham’s dreams, the flow of wine–all suggest time and transience. The river is interesting in particular because it presents Graham again attempting to assume control of his fate. The river is both where he retreats from his isolation and where he schemes to trap Lecter. But Lecter has other ideas. “Wade into the quiet of the stream,” he urges Graham in the stunning season finale. It is worth noting that Graham and FBI Director Jack Crawford are both characters who try to control outcomes (“good fishermen,” as they describe themselves in another dream), but both of them succumb to Lecter and his fatalistic philosophy. For Lecter, the river of time is not something that can be controlled; it can only be submitted to.

The image of a smashed teacup reassembling itself in the second season’s 11th episode (an image taken straight from Thomas Harris’s third Lector novel, “Hannibal”) is among the most simple and beautiful in the series. Lecter said that he would occasionally drop teacups and watch them shatter to see if they would ever come back together again, disappointed when they did not. “Someday, perhaps, a cup will come together,” he muses, fully aware that it is nothing he can ever control. It recalls physicist Brian Greene’s observation in “The Fabric of the Cosmos” that there is nothing physically impossible about an egg that has rolled off a table and smashed to come together again–yolk, shell and all–and leap back onto the table; it simply does not happen that way.

For “Hannibal” the TV show, the inevitability of time is intriguingly obvious. The program is a countdown. Lecter begins the books and films imprisoned, so we, as an audience, are aware of the inevitable fate of the titular character. At some point, Lecter must end up in protective custody. The second season premier goes as far as beginning with Lecter and Crawford at each other’s throats in pitched combat, and the entire rest of the season is a “how did we get here?” recap. Taken as a whole, it is a stark reminder of Lecter undone, his ultimate fate.

But on an individual level, Leceter’s struggle is a struggle against time as the inevitable. It is a human struggle, and one that he understands better than most. Lecter experiences death in a radically personal way, a way that most people in modern, industrial societies do not. As both butcher and chef, death is in Lecter’s office, his house and his kitchen. God seems to enjoy killing, Lecter says. And why shouldn’t he? Lecter might add. Death is the inevitable, ultimate result of existing in time. This much is certainly obvious to Lecter. A teacup, caught in time, cannot unshatter.

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